Fanny Brice: A Funny Girl revival ignores the real scandals in the Broadway legend's life

In 1964, Ray Stark had a problem. He wanted to produce a musical biography of Fanny Brice, but was married to Brice's daughter. Frances Stark was so protective of her mother's image that he had had to buy up the entire printing of an authorised, heavily censored biography because it stated, correctly, that Brice had shoplifted as a child. Brice's adult life contained much more unsavoury material, and her criminal husband, Nick Arnstein, was still alive. With such potential for lawsuits and domestic strife, Stark contrived a simple but effective solution: he lied.

Funny Girl, which will be revived next month at the Chichester Festival Theatre, was a smash on the stage as well as on screen, and, of course, made a star out of a kooky nightclub singer called Barbra Streisand. But, along with suppressing many of the facts of Brice's life, Isobel Lennart's book misrepresented her personality and style. The real Brice was an earthy, gutsy woman with a more anarchic spirit than the cool, self-consciously cute Streisand. When Brice performed, she was a rubber-faced clown, and when she met Arnstein, she was no tremulous virgin. She also never had a Yiddish accent.

Fania Borach (1891-1951) was indeed born on the Lower East Side of New York. But, though Funny Girl shows her living there until she was tapped for the Ziegfeld Follies, her family moved to New Jersey when she was a baby, then to Brooklyn and Harlem, where they had Irish friends called Brice. "I didn't even understand Jewish [sic]," she said later, "couldn't talk a word of it." A trouper from the age of 14, Brice spent several years knocking around vaudeville and burlesque (then, before strippers, a family entertainment). While on the road, she made an impulsive, short-lived marriage to a barber and had an affair with a Chicago playboy who, on their first date, took her to a show at a whorehouse.

At the outset of her career, when ethnic stereotypes were a popular source of comedy, Brice used an Irish accent and a German one and even sang what were called "coon songs". In her first Follies (1910), she was a Harlem cutie singing about her boyfriend, "When he starts to love me, ah jes' hollahs, 'Mo'!" But, the year before, a novice songwriter called Irving Berlin pointed her in a more profitable direction, with a "Hebe song" titled "Sadie Salome", and said it would go over big if she did it with a Yiddish accent. Brice learnt one, and indeed scored a hit portraying the consternation of a Jewish man whose sweetie has taken up the dance of the seven veils: "Everybody knows that I'm your lovin' Mose./Oy, oy, oy, oy, where is your clothes?"

Except for Baby Snooks, the mischievous child whom she played on radio, Brice's best-known character was the homely Jewish woman in a mismatched role. She was a Jewish squaw, a Jewish Buttercup, a Jewish Peter Pan, and a Jewish favourite of a sultan, who "appreciates a little kosher meat". Brice used her down-to-earth personality to ridicule heroines of high culture and glamorous passion. As a repentant lady of the camellias, she lay back on her couch moaning, "I've been a bad, bad woman," then bounced up to add, "But awful good company!" Sometimes her material recalled that of the music hall, whose artistes got a laugh out of their characters' misery. In "Oy! How I Hate That Fellow Nathan!" Brice bemoaned her boyfriend's reluctance to set a wedding date, ending with the startling line: "And I'll bring our children up to hate him, too!"

Brice was not a comedienne but a clown – she called herself a cartoonist in flesh. One critic praised her "slice-of-honeydew-melon smile, her occasionally crossed eyes, her flat-footed capers, and her knees that are often not on speaking terms with one another". In our cooler times, such carryings-on may sound crude. But when Garson Kanin, the director of Funny Girl on stage, asked two of Brice's friends for her most outstanding characteristic, Katharine Hepburn said "elegance", and Spencer Tracy said "sexuality". Hepburn was referring to Brice's professional elegance – though her gestures were large, she used only one, the perfect one, to make a point. She could have been speaking of Brice's couture clothes or her later career. In The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg describes his fictional film producer as having an office furnished by "one of Hollywood's more discriminating decorators, Fanny Brice". The grandest of socialites were Brice's frequent guests – she said they liked her because she treated them the same as anyone else. When the then Prince of Wales visited, she urged him to sit in a certain chair because "when I come to sell it, I'll get twice as much". At the swankiest affairs, Brice might have been in Mainbocher and pearls, but would blithely switch from her "pretty" false teeth to her "choppers" for eating and her "funny-face" set for telling jokes.

Brice said she put off making movies because she had "such a kisser the camera would have stood up and walked away". But she had great warmth – the playwright Ben Hecht said, "Theatre audiences never adored any performer more than Fanny. It would be impossible for an audience to laugh louder, weep more copiously and applaud more violently than Fanny's audience did." That lovable quality could translate into a maternal sexiness, which was certainly in evidence when, in 1912, she met Nick Arnstein, a married man.

Funny Girl portrays Arnstein – one of several aliases – as an honest man who, on one occasion, sold stolen bonds in a desperate attempt to prove his independence from a famous, successful wife. But, at the time he met Brice, the well-dressed, smooth-talking Arnstein had been arrested several times for fraud, and the six years in which they lived together before marriage were interrupted by two years in Sing Sing for illegal wiretapping. Far from being too proud to take his wife's money, he spent plenty of it, on houses, horses, and the immense legal fees needed to defend him after he became involved in the $5m bond fraud and skipped town. Besotted with Arnstein, Brice maintained his innocence (at least in public – at home she entertained too many of his gangster friends to believe it). When he came out of prison for the second time, in 1927, she divorced him, but not, as the musical has it, because they were incompatible: Arnstein had also been spending her money on other women.

Brice's anguished marriage gave a disturbing resonance to "My Man", her masochistic torch song of 1921, which this otherwise perpetually mobile entertainer delivered statue-still and eyes closed. A few years after she and Arnstein married others, however, Brice's next husband, the songwriter Billy Rose, created a number for her entitled "I Wonder Who's Keeping Him Now". Rose, who was 21 years younger and 15 inches shorter than Arnstein, was another unsatisfactory mate. Ruthless, dishonest and persistently unfaithful, he was, said Brice, the most evil man she had ever known. She divorced him when, like Arnstein's, his infidelity became blatant. Philosophical, Fanny decided she was just too direct to captivate a man for long. "Men always fall for frigid women," she said, "because they put on the best show."

Though she was known for wild extroversion, the essence of Fanny Brice might best be seen in the way she delivers a quiet line in The Great Ziegfeld. The 1936 film, in which Brice played herself, shows her being discovered by the producer when she is singing in a small-time burlesque house. A sceptical fellow performer says, "Look, Fanny, you're a hit on Tenth Avenue, but what do you think you're going to be on Fifth Avenue?" Streisand would have answered with a flippant inflection and a little smirk. But Brice, despite her wide smile and her goggle eyes, is tentative, wistful, her joyous hopes held in check as she sweetly replies, "Half as good?"

'Funny Girl', Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781 312; www.cft.org.uk), 28 April to 14 June

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